A beloved USC custodian was accused of theft and fired. The campus is rallying behind her
On several floors of the Seeley G. Mudd building on USC’s campus, Francisca Trigueros was a known and trusted face. The 61-year-old custodian had been cleaning bathrooms, classrooms, labs and offices there for more than two decades, and was on a first-name basis with many of the psychology professors and staff who worked there.
So when word got out that Trigueros had been suspended and arrested for allegedly stealing a student‘s backpack with cash in it, many of those same faculty members jumped to her defense — demanding the university investigate what they saw as a wrongful campus arrest based on a “simple misunderstanding.”
Trigueros, they reasoned, would not have done what she stood accused of doing.
“Thinking back over the decades, we’ve entrusted her with cameras, tablets, research equipment,” said Darby Saxbe, an associate professor of psychology who has been at the university since 2010. “We know she’s found lost things before; she’s always returned them. ... If she were really looking to start a life of crime, she could have profited in so many ways.”
Psychology professors, department staff and students have since written an impassioned open letter attesting to Trigueros’ integrity and offering their own narrative of the incident based on a conversation between Trigueros and Melissa Reyes, a lab manager in the department. In that version of events, Trigueros had tried to turn in the backpack but, unable to find staff to give it to, she placed it in a closet for safe-keeping.
Community members have also raised thousands of dollars online to help Trigueros make ends meet after she was subsequently fired.
The response has cast a massive spotlight on what now appears to be a minor theft case. Police said prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file felony charges and kicked the case down to City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office, though Feuer’s office said it had not yet received the case.
Trigueros’ attorney, Rana Parsanj, declined to comment Friday, citing possible charges still pending, and would not make Trigueros available to answer questions.
However, as of Friday, those involved in Trigueros’ arrest and firing were not backing down.
Capt. Kelly Muniz, a Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman, said that LAPD detectives — who investigate all potential felonies on campus — reviewed surveillance footage of the incident, determined that Trigueros had committed felony theft, and presented the case to prosecutors for consideration.
Muniz would not say what was captured on the video or provide any other details of the LAPD investigation, citing the pending case. Police have not disclosed what happened to the backpack.
Lauren Bartlett, a USC spokeswoman, said that the university had followed standard procedures by calling in the LAPD and turning over the surveillance video, and that it was “cooperating fully” with the investigation.
Neither the police nor the university would share the video with The Times. Trigueros’ arrest was first reported by USC Annenberg Media.
Trigueros was not a USC employee. She worked for Aramark, a food and facilities service company that contracts with the university. The company has defended her firing.
“After an investigation involving the police and our HR team, the person in question was found to be in violation of our policies regarding lost and found items and is no longer with the company,” Aramark spokesman Chris Collom said in an email. Collom did not provide Aramark’s lost and found policy when asked.
For USC faculty who knew Trigueros, the university’s handling of the situation has been frustrating.
The day after her arrest, Trigueros reached out to Reyes and explained what had happened, Reyes said. The two had become friends over the years. Reyes said she then relayed Trigueros’ story to the department.
As Reyes told it, Trigueros had been cleaning a general use classroom on March 10, the Thursday before USC’s weeklong spring break, when she found a backpack that contained “a substantial amount of money.”
Reyes said Trigueros tried to turn the backpack in to the front desk, which is common practice, but no one was there. So, instead, she put the backpack in a locked supply closet.
On March 15, Trigueros was confronted by USC Department of Public Safety officers and her manager, who had seen surveillance video of Trigueros taking the backpack, Reyes said. Trigueros was then questioned, suspended from her job and arrested.
Reyes and other faculty said that, based on that description of events, Trigueros had done nothing wrong. “At the time of the arrest, the backpack and all of its contents were still safely locked away,” the open letter states.
“Within the Department of Psychology, lost items are typically returned to the administrative assistant in the main department office,” the faculty and students’ open letter states. “Francisca was immediately suspended without pay and prevented from taking personal days to recoup lost income. She has since been fired for her good faith effort to keep a student’s missing possessions safe.”
The letter, which had amassed more than 10,000 signatures as of Friday, also questioned whether a tenured professor would have received the same treatment as Trigueros and whether being accused of a crime justifies her termination. It called on the university to reinstate Trigueros as an employee and to “protect its faculty, staff, students and contractors from wrongful on-campus arrests.”
Leslie Berntsen, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, said it was “heartening to know that so many people share our department’s concerns and want to express their support for Francisca.”
Stephen Boardman, communications director of SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents custodians who work for Aramark at the campus, said Trigueros is filing a grievance after being fired by the company.
“While we are still in the process of gathering facts, we have serious concerns about the way this investigation has proceeded from the start,” Boardman said. “We believe that all workers should be afforded dignity, respect and due process and we will continue to stand with Francisca until this is resolved.”
USC custodians are in the midst of contract negotiations with Aramark. On Thursday afternoon, they rallied on campus to demand higher wages and benefits from Aramark with support from the university community.
Eduarda, a USC custodian who declined to give her last name, said she had heard about Trigueros’ arrest but was not aware she had been fired. She said it’s not uncommon for custodians to find valuable items as they clean — twice, she has found phones and held on to them to try and contact the owners. One student who she returned a phone to gave her a small gift as a thanks.
Eduarda said under company policy custodians who find items are to turn them over to their supervisors. But sometimes supervisors don’t answer calls, she said, and they opt to leave the items in place or try to find the owner, as she has in the past.
USC freshman Daniel Chung, who joined the custodians in their rally, said he signed the petition in support of Trigueros, and saw a link between her treatment and the broader fight for better wages. Both, he said, reflect injustices at USC.
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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